Managing and Leading Effective Projects

The performance of organizational projects depends on several factors that include processes and systems, but leadership skills top the list. Leadership, organizational culture, and team performance are critical to achieving successful projects. A project can be an event with a beginning and end date, like preparing the organization for union organizing or installing a new technology system, or a comprehensive change initiative designed to develop workforce resilience, adaptability, and innovation capabilities for future success. Managing and leading effective projects is part art form and part science, but every project depends on organizational culture and effective human-centered leadership skills.  

Viewing Projects as Change Initiatives

No matter how much advanced planning is done and how carefully processes and systems are designed, challenges will arise during any project. When that happens, leadership skills determine how well the challenges are met and overcome. The reality is that many projects falter because they fail to go according to plan, and leaders are not equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to realign efforts to stay on track towards goals. Every project is a change journey. Assuming that perspective helps with understanding what it takes to manage and lead effective projects. 

What is project management? The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines it as "the use of specific knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to deliver something of value to people." We could talk about things like developing a project schedule, but successfully managing projects comes down to managing people 

McKinsey & Company addressed the management of a change journey in the book Beyond Performance 2.0. There are five stages proposed to achieving the change goals, and at each stage, critical questions are asked and answered. 

  1. Where do we want to go? (aspire) 
  2. How ready are we to go there? (assess) 
  3. What must we do to get there? (architect) 
  4. How do we manage the journey? (act) 
  5. How do we continue to improve? (advance) 

One of the key points is that managing plans, so they stay on track and adapt when necessary requires leaders who can "give employees a sense of ownership in the process, as well as the energy needed to change." At the act stage, leadership plays an important role in problem-solving and people-solving. In our management consulting experience, these two "solving" roles often intersect.  

Your leaders must: 

  • Track projects by time, budget, and operational performance 
  • Check team mindsets periodically by conducting employee surveys, observing employees, and producing relevant analytics. 
  • Measure project progress by measuring key business outcomes to determine improvements are made and problems are not developing. 
  • Keep the team focused on the goals

Notice that most of the project management process concerns people. It's not a leader sitting at a computer producing analytics or reports. A good project leader manages people by coaching employees, helping people overcome the challenges they meet in their roles, and encouraging employees to assume responsibility for project success.  

Leading Effective Projects Through Employee Engagement 

One of the most important roles a leader plays in managing and leading effective projects is inspiring employees to take ownership of their role in the project. You want employees who are energized, engaged, communicative, and invested in project success. McKinsey's research found that leaders who engage influencers in change programs will make the programs 3.8 times more likely to succeed. Influencers are engaged and know how to engage others. 

Poor project performance almost always comes down to poor leadership communication. This includes: 

  • Not effectively communicating realistic goals 
  • Not developing a shared purpose with employees 
  • Failing to identify and communicate risks  
  • Not communicating changes promptly 
  • Failing to link the project goals to business strategy 
  • Poor communication of the value of the project to stakeholders 

Managing and leading projects effectively requires keeping team members engaged at every step of the project journey. The question is: How? 

managing and leading effective projects


Energizing Employees Through Project Leadership 

Employee engagement has a positive impact on project performance. How does a leader keep team members energized? How does the leader keep the energy level high for the project's duration? How does your leader get employees to accept ownership of the project?   

  • Establish a clear project vision and goals coupled with a powerful theme so employees can envision their efforts within the context of the big picture 
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities. 
  • Connect project goals to business success 
  • Communicate the importance of each project team member's contribution to project success 
  • Stay engaged in the project team's work. 
  • Show high energy levels as a role model. 
  • Maintain clear and constant communication about project progress on an ongoing basis 
  • Empower team members through job autonomy and by giving them the ability to make decisions 
  • Allow employees to grow in their roles through skills development and learning opportunities. 
  • Give regular feedback through conversations and tech tools, like employee apps
  • Be a coach and mentor and avoid micro-managing 
  • Create collaborative opportunities for decision-making 
  • Reward project team members through recognition in some manner 
  • Ensure employees have all the tools and resources they need to perform at their highest level  

Getting employees to own and support the project is a leadership challenge. You want project employees to exhibit organizational citizenship behaviors to support project success. The ownership begins with the leader. Unless your leader is fully committed to the project, the project is at risk of failure. Employees will follow their leader in attitude and perspective. 

The Impact of Organizational Culture on Project Leadership 

The organizational culture has a big influence on managing and leading effective projects. The culture shapes how people work together as they pursue organizational goals. If your organization's culture is based on positive employee relations and collaboration, the project management process is more likely to succeed. It also saves the need to change employee attitudes which is a project in and of itself!  

For comparison, if the organization has a culture of control and micro-management, top-down non-collaborative decision-making, lack of trust, and weak ethics, project management is going to be more difficult. If the organizational culture doesn't recognize employee development for career progression, it's difficult to fully engage employees in projects. Why exert the best effort? 

Project teams need human-centric leadership. It's easy to talk about project leadership from a technical and hard-skills perspective - planning, measuring, coordinating, reporting, etc. That perspective leaves out the importance of human centricity. 

leading effective projects

IBM embarked on a transformation to become a human-centered organization that focuses on human outcomes internally and externally. "Everything the enterprise does is focused on driving better experiences for users and customers…Instead of framing opportunities, projects, and organizational constructs around internal logistics, human-centered organizations frame them for the outside-in: as user or customer needs…human-centered organizations recognize the dynamic nature of their users and customers, empowering them to actively participate in the design and delivery of their experiences." This strategy has led to IBM delivering one successful project after another, even as it changed its product mix. Humans – inside and outside the organization – come first. 

Understanding the role of organizational culture in the ability to energize and motivate employees is crucial to the successful management of projects.  

Implementing Change Through Project Leadership 

Managing and leading effective projects requires a depth of hard and soft skills. Too often, it's the hard skills that take precedence - scheduling, assigning team responsibilities, and analyzing progress. It's not surprising, so many projects fail in that case - the people involved in the project are not fully engaged. A positive organizational culture, leadership communication, and employee engagement skills are every bit as important as the ability to prepare a project timeline and more important for driving project success.  

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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